How did ancient Nomadic communities conduct trade?

How did ancient Nomadic communities conduct trade?

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Given that nomads are always on the move, how would you conduct trade with one another? Or maybe a better question did they even conduct trade with one another?

Were there always cities/villages where nomadic communities were prevalent where they could gather to meet/share news/trade? IE were there cities in ancient Mongolia and ancient Americas?

The question I am asking is the one in the title, the other questions in the descriptions are just to explain that question in more detail.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in answering this question is the difficulty in generalizing across space, across various kinds of nomadic groups, and indeed, across individual nomadic groups. Also, much of what can be said depends on what we know about nomadic groups in recent history and make assumptions about ancient groups. I think someone with good archeological research skills might be able to offer a more full answer for you:

Having said that, I thought I would share some observations on general aspects of nomadic trade I found useful in one article cited below:

  • Some groups are defined by anthropologists and historians as "pure pastoralists," that is, they are almost completely dependent upon the products they find in the lands they cover, and meat and products of the animals they bring with them. For these groups, there is very little significant trade, and it is not carried out in formalized ways. Examples include Kirghiz tribesmen. (p19) This probably corresponds most closely to the trade you are talking about before the dominance of agricultural communities.

  • Another way to distinguish the above group is made by E. Gellner: "symbiotic" nomads vs. "simple or primitive" isolated nomads (p42). The latter might have traded with each other but are not at the periphery of a more organized system.

  • Once they develop, more common was the interaction between nomadic groups and agricultural communities, as in the "symbiotic" nomads that are embedded into a larger system. Most infamously, this could take the form of raids, etc. but there was also trade in the form of barter of livestock, livestock products, and wild foods for grain, etc.

  • Trade between nomadic groups could take place (as pointed out by @jwenting) at appointed places. Example in the article, quoting the work of P. H. Gulliver is the Labwor Hills as a site of exchange between the Tobur and the Jie pastoralists in East Africa.(p43)

  • A more recent important contribution (though controversial) is the work Debt: the First 5,000 Years by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. The descriptions of trade between nomadic groups makes frequent appearance in the work, which begins by critiquing the typical way that bartered exchanges before the existence of money are portrayed in our textbooks. Rather than an inefficient system replaced by rational accounting methods of cash, Graeber looks at the rich cultural systems of exchange, debt, and power that are embedded in these systems. Rather than telling you necessarily "where" they engaged in trade, I would encourage you to look at this source as synthesizing scholarship on how such trade was carried out and mediated relationships between groups.

Page Numbers above are from:

"Nomadic Pastoralism" Rada Dyson-Hudson and Neville Dyson-Hudson Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 9, (1980), pp. 15-61 Walled access at:

The Roman Empire and Trade

Trade was an essential part of life for the Romans - the empire was worth a great deal and trade managed to bring in a lot of that money. Rome’s population was one million and this amount required many different things which were brought back through trading. By importing goods from other countries they could raise their living standards and have more luxuries.

Trade routes covered the Roman Empire along with sea routes covering the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and many different land routes which used the roads that the Romans Trade had built. The two main motives for building roads was trade and moving of the Roman Army.

Roman Commerce

Ostia was the most significant port since it was the closest main one to Rome it sat at the River Tiber’s mouth and was just 15 miles away from Rome. A lot of ships sailed between Ostia and Carthage, a major city in North Africa, and this journey took a total of three to five days. Ostia also had ships arrive there from France and Spain. The entire goods could be transferred to Rome very quickly since they were carried in barges to the city and up to the River Tiber once the slaves moved the items across from the merchant ships over to the barges. Ostia did in fact become very involved in Rome’s downfall when it was captured in AD 409 by Alaric the Goth, which cut off Rome’s important food supply.

The Romans did as much as possible to ensure the safety of sea journeys, for instance by building lighthouses as safe harbours and docks, and the Roman Navy made attempts for the safety of the Mediterranean Sea from pirates.

Rome made trading as simple as could be - only a single currency was used and no complicating customer dues. An additional welcome proved to be trade due to the Empire’s peaceful years. It was fundamental to the Empire’s success - when it collapsed, the trade throughout lands which previously made up the Roman Empire also collapsed. Merchants also found the Mediterranean became a danger zone as there no authorities were available to control pirate activity as far north as the English channel.

They used their road network to transport from one country to another:

  • Silver with Britain which was used to make jewellery and coins, and wool to make clothes
  • Clothing dyes from the south-eastern area of the empire and spices for flavouring food
  • Silk from the Far East (China) to produce fine clothes
  • Cotton from Egypt
  • Wild animals to be used in gladiator fights from Africa

Spain, France, the Middle East and north Africa were the main trading partners. The Romans also imported beef, corn, glass, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, timber, tin and wine.

Britain sent out lead, woollen products, and tin - in return they imported wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus. The British traders depended on the Romans for the Empire’s security - when it collapsed and Europe seemed to be taken over by Barbarians, traders didn’t have the guarantee that their goods would get through. Without the added power of Rome, no one would be eager to buy produce from Britain and other areas in Europe.

What was acquired from where?

The Romans imported a whole variety of materials: beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine. The main trading partners were in Spain, France, the Middle East and North Africa.

Britain exported lead, woollen products and tin. In return, it imported from Rome wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus. British traders relied on the Romans to provide security within the Empire. When this collapsed and Europe was seemingly overrun by Barbarians, no one could guarantee traders that their produce would get through. Also, without the power of Rome, who would be willing to buy what was produced in Britain and other parts of Europe?

Early Pastoralists

Pastoralism means the herding of animals – mainly sheep, goats and cattle but in some places yaks, llamas and camels. It often implies a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life, with groups following their herds from pasturage to pasturage to ensure that there is enough grassland for their animals.

Because the heartlands of civilization have almost always lain in fertile areas which can support large, dense populations, pastoralists have often appeared to be on the margins of history. In fact, though, they have played a key role in world history on repeated occasions, as well as acting as carriers of trade and influences – technological, cultural, religious – between different civilizations.


The origins of pastoralism

Early farming communities had to learn how to make best use of the land which they occupied. For some this meant focussing more on crops than animals for others, in less fertile landscapes, it meant focussing more on raising livestock.

In the grasslands and highlands of Eurasia, the dry climate and poorer soil made it hard to make a living from growing crops. In these regions, small groups developed a lifestyle based on keeping flocks and herds of animals. These groups became the first pastoralists.

Animals, particularly sheep and cattle, require large amounts of grazing land to feed on, and need to be regularly moved from place to place to find fresh pastures. A pastoral economy therefore demands much more land than one based on crop-growing, and supports a smaller population. Most pastoral societies, therefore, consist of small groups which tend to follow a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life. In many cases, there is an annual cycle of grazing the herds in cooler, mountain pastures during the summer and bringing them down to warmer grasslands in winter (a practice known as transhumance).

Pastoralism probably originated in early Neolithic times, when, in areas not suited to arable farming, some hunter-gatherer groups took to supplementing their traditional way of life with keeping domesticated cattle, sheep and goats.

Pastoralism in the ancient Middle East

Pastoralism has always been important in the Middle East, much of which, being very dry, is unsuitable for arable farming. The archaeological record suggests the presence of pastoralists in Palestine as early as 8000 BCE.

The rise of irrigation farming and, later, urban civilization, in the great river valleys of Mesopotamia would have given pastoralism an extra boost. The dense populations that now arose in the great river valleys progressively shifted to intensive crops growing in order to feed themselves. Animal husbandry would have become less important to them, as it took up a lot of land which could be more efficiently used for crops. The people of the river valleys still needed animal products, however, and for these they relied increasingly on the animal herders.

Relations with farming populations

These lived on the less fertile grasslands on the margins of the irrigated areas. An exchange system grew up in which pastoralists swapped their hides, wool, milk, meat, horn and bone, or even live animals, for the villagers’ grain, peas, and so on and probably for some professionally-produced craft goods as well. This exchange allowed the animal herders to specialise more on their pastoral activities.

Pastoral tribes became an important element in the ancient Middle East. Most of the time, relations between city-dwellers and farmers, on the one hand, and pastoralists on the other, were probably reasonably harmonious. It is likely that animosity was never far way, however. The differences in lifestyles bred mutual suspicion and contempt.

At regular intervals open hostilities broke out between them. In these the nomads, despite their fewer numbers, had a military edge because of their mobility. Coalitions of nomadic groups could quickly bring concentrated force to bear on certain points, and as quickly disperse. Farmers would have found this harder to deal with, tied as they were to their own plots of land.

Also, the nomadic lifestyle was a hard one, and competition between nomadic groups for scarce resources made low-level warfare endemic between them: they were inured to warfare in a way that farmers were not. This too would have given them an advantage when it came to fighting. As a result, Middle Eastern history was characterised by frequent nomadic raids, migrations and outright conquests.


Sometime before 1000 BCE some pastoralists succeeded in domesticating camels. This allowed pastoral groups to penetrate much deeper into the Arabian desert. The Bedouin way of life, in which small bands of nomads based on scattered oases in the deep desert, became possible.

Some pastoral peoples of the Middle East

In the Middle East, the pastoralists mostly belonged to the Semitic races (though not all Semites were pastoralists – witness the Canaanites). The first to make a major impact on history were the Akkadians, then the Amorites, the Hebrews, the Aramaeans, the Chaldeans, and later the Arabs. Other non-Semitic pastoralists who made an impact on the ancient Middle East were the ancestors of the Hittites, the Mitanni (who ruled Syria and northern Mesopotamia c. 1500 BCE), the Kassites (who ruled Babylonia for some four centuries) and the Iranians. All these groups originated on the steppes of central Asia.

Pastoralism in central Asia

The great expanses of grassland in central Asia were well suited to a pastoral economy. The sheer vastness of the steppes in this region meant that groups ranged over far greater distances than in the Middle East, and had less regular access to the produce of farming communities. They came to depend more on their animals, every part of which was exploited: wool and skins for clothes and tents milk, meat and blood for sustenance bone and horn for weapons and implements.

Horses, wheels, carts and chariots

It was here that, between 4000 and 3500 BCE, groups of people first domesticated horses. They did so for their meat and milk, rather than for riding: the tough little steppe ponies were too small for that. Some however may have been used to drag primitive sleighs along the ground, used to help carry goods on the regular migrations these nomadic people undertook. By 3000 BCE these sleighs had had wheels attached to them, to make the earliest carts. A thousand years spoked wheels allowed heavy carts to evolve into light carts, or chariots. These may have been developed first to help the people herd their horses, or for hunting they were soon being used for war, and were to have a far-reaching impact on the civilizations of the Middle East and China.

A related development, also used in both hunting and warfare, was the composite (sometime called the compound) bow. This was a bow made of horn, sinew and wood glued together, which allowed it to pack much more punch than one made entirely of wood.

The Indo-Europeans

The early nomadic groups who domesticated horses and then developed wheeled vehicles and chariots, are thought by most scholars to be the ancestors of a group of peoples who spoke a language which we call “Indo-European”. They spread out from their homeland north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, across the central Asian steppes westward into Europe, eastward to what is now northern China, and southward into Iran and the Indian subcontinent. In so doing, they spread their language, which became ancestral to the Indo-European group of today: most European languages (including Greek, Latin, the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, and the Germanic, Scandinavian and Slav languages), Iranian and several languages in South Asia.

They also spread their polytheistic religion into Europe, where it evolved into the religions of ancient Greece, Rome, the Celts, and the Germans and Norse peoples. In Iran it formed the context in which Zoroastrianism eventually arose and in South Asia it became the Vedic religion of early India and formed the context in which Buddhism and mature Hinduism emerged.

Horseback riding

Sometime about 1000 BCE, pastoral groups in the central Asian steppes, having bred larger and larger horses, took to riding on horseback. Horse-borne warriors are much swifter and more mobile even than chariot-borne ones, and this skill gave these nomads a huge advantage over other peoples. Civilized cultures soon adopted horse riding (the Assyrians were probably the first to do so, and the Chinese did so somewhat later), and horse cavalry was to remain a major component of armies right up to the 20th century. For thousands of years, though, the steppe nomads, as a result of lives spent on horseback, were by far the most adept at this kind of warfare. Coupled with the hardihood that their lifestyles gave them, and the toughness of their ponies, they would have an impact on the history of Eurasia out of all proportion to their numbers. Right up to the 17th century, when central Asia fell under the control of the expanding empires of Russia and China, nomadic peoples posed a danger to settled agriculturalists.

The nomadic peoples who would have the most impact on world history were the Scythians, the Huns, the Bulgars, the Magyars, various Turkish tribes, and the Mongols.

Pastoral peoples in other parts of the world

Early pastoral societies also arose in India and Africa. The arid regions of central India are very suitable for the pastoral way of life, and here the distinctive zebu cattle were domesticated. In North Africa, Berber and Taureg peoples took to herding sheep and goats, while pastoral cultures also arose in the Sudan (ancient Nubia), the savannah belt south of the Sahara (were the Fulani people would later predominate), and in east Africa (including such peoples as the Somalis and Masai). All these specialized in cattle herding.

Some features of pastoral societies

Hundreds of pastoral groups have made themselves known to world history, each with its distinctive culture however, some features were common to many such societies.

Clans and tribes

Nomadic societies are based on small groups made up of extended families, or clans, moving their herds from place to place at regular intervals. A number of such clans form a tribe. The clans of a tribe congregate in one location at regular intervals – perhaps once a year – to trade with one another, forge marriage alliances, and deal with matters concerning the entire tribe. They then disperse again to their various ranges.

For nomads, control of strategic resources, particularly watering places and good pasturage, was vital. Each tribe and, within this, each clan, claimed privileged access to certain of these and if this access was denied, disputes resulted. When a dispute arose between two clans of the same tribe, the tribal elders would try to deal with it. They often failed to prevent low-level hostilities and violent vendettas lasting several generations. If a dispute between two or more tribes arose, tribal warfare would result.

The steppes saw frequent clashes between tribes as one sought to expand its pasturelands at the expense of another, which often spilled over as raids into the territories of neighbouring farming peoples. This situation gave rise to a culture which stressed warlike qualities as well as a ruthless will to achieve advantage by whatever means. Both in the Middle East and central Asia, cunning and trickery were part of the nomad’s stock in trade, side by side with open-hearted generosity and hospitality.


Women had a more respected position in some pastoral societies than others. In all groups, leadership was exercised by men. The continual warfare will have reinforced this situation. It will also have produced a regular intake of war captives, especially women and children (most men on a defeated side would have been massacred). Some members of nomadic societies, therefore, were slaves. On the whole, however, pastoralists tended to have more egalitarian societies than farmers, and certainly more so than civilized ones.


Because nomadic groups travelled comparatively long distances, they were in a good position to trade with the settled populations in which they came into contact. This may have taken the form of gift exchanges, to maintain peaceable relations between the different groups.

Linked to this, in the central Asian steppes especially, the vast areas covered meant that, even from an early date, the nomads acted as a conduit of ideas and technologies – such as wheels, chariots, metallurgy and horse riding – between the more sedentary civilizations they bordered.

Impacts on the environment

The nomadic way of life clearly alters the landscape less overtly than does arable or mixed farming, but his does not mean it has no impact at all. Over generations, grazing herds tend to favour certain plants over others, so that the plant cover in pasturelands become less varied. Also, pastoralists sometimes use fire as a way of turning forest into pasture, and of rejuvenating pasturelands. This can have a significant impact on the type of plants present in such a landscape. Fire and grazing can also prevent forests from growing, and if on mountain slopes, this can lead to erosion.

When nomadic pastoralists encroach on farmland their impact can be devastating for farmers. This is especially so on the marginal agricultural land on the frontier zones bordering the deserts. The grazing of herds can quickly reduce plant cover. This makes the soil unstable, and erosion soon follows. Much land that was once well suited to crops, especially in the Middle East, has been permanently rendered fit only for the grazing of sheep and goats, which can survive in semi-desert landscapes. What has made this worse is the contempt which nomads feel for farmers and farming the spoiling of agricultural land has sometimes been quite deliberate.

One modern problem, overgrazing, has tended not to occur on a significant scale in the past, in that nomads have been skilled in culling unwanted animals and keeping their herds to optimum sizes. It has mainly been when the populations amongst the herders themselves have expanded, as has occurred after the introduction of modern medicines, that their herds have ballooned in numbers too, beyond the capacity of their environments. This has been a particular problem in regions with fragile ecosystems, such as is found for example in the Sahel, on the southern margins of the Sahara desert.

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River Valley Communities in Ancient Civilizations

Arising ancient civilizations in Egypt, the Near East, India, and China were impacted by vast river valley systems that sustained growth and prosperity.

Most of the great Ancient civilizations arose around river valley communities, coinciding with the late Neolithic period and the emergence of the Agricultural Revolution. As such, these river valley communities had similar origins and formed the backbone of growing communities that would eventually be considered empires, dominating entire geographic regions. Such developments can be charted in Egypt, the Near East, India, and China. The development of culture within each of these communities followed similar patterns, largely due to sedentarization associated with great river valleys.

Common Developmental Trends in Ancient River Valley Civilizations

Civilizations emerging along the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow Rivers transformed nomadic societies into permanent dwellers through processes that included common elements. Among these are:

  • The construction of early settlements that led to city-building
  • Use of livestock and the development of agriculture generally associated with one or two primary crops
  • Development of religious beliefs tied to the environment
  • Growth of a political system
  • Development of trade and commerce
  • Social class structure identification
  • Creation of a social and cultural self-identity peculiar to each different emerging society
  • Beginning of a written tradition for record keeping and religious practices
  • Military innovations for protection and for conquest

Late Neolithic Migrations to River Valley Settlements

Although each river valley civilization saw migration and settlement at slightly different periods (The Near East/Mesopotamia and Egypt ca 8000 B.C.E. China and India ca 4000 – 3500 B.C.E.), the pattern was the same. In Mesopotamia, for example, migrations from Southeastern Turkey caused the development of agricultural communities along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. These farm settlements eventually surrounded the early city-states. City-states offered protection and were the political and religious centers.

In Egypt, former hunter-gathering groups settled in the dry river beds that once served as Nile River extensions in the Delta. Eventually, these communities established farms along the fertile banks of the Nile and built vast urban centers as well as the great monuments like the pyramids during the early years of the Old Kingdom.

Civilizations that arose along the Indus and Yellow Rivers experienced similar developments, creating sophisticated communities along the rivers that provided water for agricultural endeavors, communication and trade through rudimentary shipping, and food. River systems also influenced religious beliefs. This is most evident with Ancient Egyptian culture. Although along the Yellow River in China, evidence exists that ancestor worship and divination practices occurred.

Other Emerging Ancient Civilizations not Associated with River Valleys

The late Neolithic period saw developments of civilization throughout the world. In the Americas, indigenous peoples in the Andes, for example, developed highly sophisticated agricultural methods resulting in hybrid crops such as potatoes and corn.

In other Mediterranean regions smaller civilizations arose without the benefit of river systems. This was true in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. The Antalya Museum in Southern Turkey, for example, exhibits hundreds of artifacts from the “Early Bronze Age,” including items dated to the 4th Century B.C.E. removed from the excavation of 500 burial sites between 1963 and 1974.

Because river valley civilizations tended to develop into ancient empires, some historians note the importance of geography in the development of civilizations. In Greece, for example, the hilly terrain and changing climate/rain patterns affected the early city-states, creating a vast array of independent societies unable or unwilling to unite, at least until after the Peloponnesian Wars.

Apart from river valleys, however, there are still common factors associated with virtually all emerging civilizations. Each one benefited from the worldwide Agricultural Revolution. Each one developed religious traditions associated with geographic considerations that included placing the gods in the “high places.” Yet river valley civilizations, unlike most others, tended to develop into formidable empires, at least in the early phases of ancient history. In Mesopotamia, this was due, in part, to an early arms race of sorts as each newly emerging power developed new weapons technologies, siege strategies, and better weapons.

River Valley Civilizations Influence Western Civilization

Unal Demirer, an archaeologist associated with the Antalya Museum, writes that, “Turkey was not only a passageway from which the ancient Asian Turkish culture was transmitted to Europe, but also, conversely, was a platform for Western Culture in its dialogue with Eastern Culture.” This is why all Western Civilization studies begin with the river valley civilizations of Egypt and the Near East.

The Tea Horse Road

The ancient tea horse road was composed of a system of caravan paths that made their way through the mountains located in present-day China and Tibet. The regions that the route passed through included Sichuan and Yunnan, which are thought by historians to be the first regions in the world to grow tea. The route was an essential link that connected the tea growing regions with areas that consumed tea but lacked the necessary climate for it to thrive properly. Apart from tea, salt was one of the most vital items traded along the route. The trade relied heavily on horses, mules. and human porters to transport the trade commodities. Traders typically exchanged horses from Tibet for Chinese tea which earned the route its distinctive name. The horses were essential to the Chinese mainly as they were battling nomadic communities at the time.

Your guide to the Silk Road

An extraordinary endeavour to bridge East and West, this snaking trade route also became a conduit of culture, religion and ideas. BBC History Revealed discovers how this vital artery sprung up from a second-century BC rumour

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Published: August 6, 2020 at 11:00 am

What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was a trading route – or network of trading routes – that connected China with the West in ancient times. The name ‘Silk Road’ was only coined in the 19th century, but the routes it refers to originated around the second century BC.

How did the Silk Road come into being?

In 138 BC the Chinese emperor dispatched an envoy called Zhang Qian to make contact with a tribal group in central Asia. When Zhang arrived, he was captured and kept as a prisoner for several years, but was eventually freed and returned to China where he told, among other things, of the magnificent Arabian horses he had encountered.

The Chinese authorities were keen to acquire these horses and so began a process of long-distance trade with central Asia. Meanwhile, from the west, central Asia had come into contact with European civilisations, initially through the conquests of Alexander the Great who reached as far as India in the fourth century BC.

Later on, it was the growing Roman empire that was coming to dominate the region and so the emerging Silk Road acted as a bridge between the East and the West, through central Asia and the Middle East.

More from our explainer series…

Why is it called the Silk Road?

It’s because silk was one of the key goods traded along the route. The Chinese had learned how to manufacture this luxurious material from silkworms perhaps as early as the third millennium BC and, for a long time, they were the only people who could produce it. It was highly prized by other civilisations – especially Ancient Rome – and so it became one of China’s main exports and the currency by which they often paid for the goods that they required.

The name Silk Road is a little misleading, though, because silk was only one of a large number of different items that were traded on the network, which also included textiles, precious metals, spices and furs.

How did these items travel across the Silk Road?

The Silk Road stretched around 4,000 miles, so extremely few people would have travelled the entire length of it themselves. Generally goods were carried by a number of different traders, having been exchanged several times along the way. The traders themselves journeyed in groups – sometimes containing hundreds of people – riding on camels or horses or occasionally travelling by foot. Some items were also carried by sea, as maritime Silk Roads developed.

Was it just goods that travelled on the Silk Road?

Not at all. In fact, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Silk Road is the mixing of cultures and ideas that it facilitated. Along the road, people from many different civilisations got to meet each other and the results were extraordinary. Religions in particular were spread along the road and this is how, for example, Buddhism travelled from India to China. Technology was also disseminated via the Silk Road, including the Chinese inventions of paper and gunpowder.

When did the Silk Road come to an end?

The road was still in use in the late middle ages and famously the Venetian explorer Marco Polo travelled along it to China in the 13th century (although his story is increasingly questioned by historians). However, it went into decline not long afterwards for a variety of reasons, including attacks on the Chinese empire and the growth of European sea routes to the East.

Nowadays, the Silk Road has become a popular route for tourism, while policymakers speak about developing new silk roads across Asia to boost economic growth in the continent.

American Indian Women

What were women treated like in the tribes of the Indians? Were they given more rights than American women of the time?


In 1644, the Rev. John Megalopensis, minister at a Dutch Church in New Netherlands, complained that Native American women were “obliged to prepare the Land, to mow, to plant, and do every Thing the Men do nothing except hunting, fishing, and going to War against their Enemies. . .” Many of his fellow Europeans described American Indian women as “slaves” to the men, because of the perceived differences in their labor, compared to European women. Indian women performed what Europeans considered to be men’s work. But, from the Native American perspective, women’s roles reflected their own cultural emphases on reciprocity, balance, and autonomy. Most scholars agree that Native American women at the time of contact with Europeans had more authority and autonomy than did European women.

It is hard to make any generalizations about indigenous societies, because North America’s First Peoples consisted of hundreds of separate cultures, each with their own belief systems, social structures, and cultural and political practices. Evidence is particularly scarce about women’s everyday lives and responsibilities. However, most cultures shared certain characteristics that promoted gender equality.

Kinship, extended family, and clan bound people together within a system of mutual obligation and respect. Lineage was central to determining status and responsibilities, consent held communities together, and concepts of reciprocity extended to gender roles and divisions of authority.

Men were generally responsible for hunting, warfare, and interacting with outsiders, therefore they had more visible, public roles. Women, on the other hand, managed the internal operations of the community. They usually owned the family’s housing and household goods, engaged in agricultural food production and gathering of foodstuffs, and reared the children.

Because women’s activities were central to the community’s welfare, they also held important political, social, and economic power. In many North American societies, clan membership and material goods descended through women. For example, the Five (later Six) Nations of the Iroquois Confederation all practiced matrilineal descent. Clan matrons selected men to serve as their chiefs, and they deposed chiefs with whom they were dissatisfied. Women’s life-giving roles also played a part in their political and social authority. In Native American creation stories, it was often the woman who created life, through giving birth to children, or through the use of their own bodies to create the earth, from which plants and animals emerged.

Some scholars argue that, after contact, women’s authority steadily declined because of cultural assimilation. Euro-American men insisted on dealing with Indian men in trade negotiations, and ministers demanded that Indians follow the Christian modes of partriarchy and gendered division of labor that made men farmers and women housekeepers.

However, other scholars, such as SUNY Fredonia anthropologist Joy Bilharz and University of North Carolina historian Theda Perdue, argue that many indigenous women maintained authority within their communities. Matrilineal inheritance of clan identity remained important parts of many cultures long after contact, and women continued to use their maternal authority to influence political decisions within and outside of their own nations.

For example, as the United States increased pressure against the Cherokee nation to relinquish their eastern lands and move west, groups of Cherokee women petitioned their Council to stand their ground. In these communications, they sternly reminded their “[b]eloved children” that they had raised the Council members on that land which “God gave us to inhabit and raise provisions.” They admonished their children not to “part with any more lands.”

Another Cherokee woman wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, advocating peace between the new United States and the Cherokee nation. She advised Franklin that political leaders “. . . ought to mind what a woman says, and look upon her as a mother – and I have Taken the prevelage to Speak to you as my own Children . . . and I am in hopes that you have a beloved woman amongst you who will help to put her children right if they do wrong, as I shall do the same. . . . ” American Indian women assumed that their unique positions in their societies gave them the right to play the mother card when necessary.

For more information

Primary Documents:
John Megalopensis, “A Dutch Minister Describes the Iroquois.” Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., American History Told by Contemporaries, vol. I. New York: 1898.

Petitions of the Women’s Councils, Petition, May 2, 1817 in Presidential Papers Microfilm: Andrew Jackson. Library of Congress, series 1, reel 22.

“Letter from Cherokee Indian Woman to Benjamin Franklin, Governor of the State of Pennsylvania,” Paul Lauter et al., eds, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1800, 6th ed. New York: 2009.

For Further Reading:
Joy Bilharz, “First Among Equals? The Changing Status of Seneca Women” in Laura F. Klein, ed., Women and Power in Native North America. Norman, Ok.: 1995. 101-112.

Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln, Neb: 1998.

Nancy Shoemaker, ed., Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women. New York: 1995.


"Obleka, an Eskimo woman," Frank Nowell, 1907. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

"Kutenai woman," Edward Curtis, 1910. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Slave Trade

When the first Europeans arrived in the late fifteenth century, many inhabitants of the Gold Coast area were striving to consolidate their newly acquired territories and to settle into a secure and permanent environment. Several immigrant groups had yet to establish firm ascendancy over earlier occupants of their territories, and considerable displacement and secondary migrations were in progress. Ivor Wilks, a leading historian of Ghana, observed that Akan purchases of slaves from Portuguese traders operating from the Congo region augmented the labor needed for the state formation that was characteristic of this period. Unlike the Akan groups of the interior, the major coastal groups, such as the Fante, Ewe, and Ga, were for the most part settled in their homelands.

The Portuguese were the first to arrive. By 1471, under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator, they had reached the area that was to become known as the Gold Coast because Europeans knew the area as the source of gold that reached Muslim North Africa by way of trade routes across the Sahara. The initial Portuguese interest in trading for gold, ivory, and pepper so increased that in 1482 the Portuguese built their first permanent trading post on the western coast of present-day Ghana. This fortress, Elmina Castle, constructed to protect Portuguese trade from European competitors and hostile Africans, still stands.

With the opening of European plantations in the New World during the 1500s, which suddenly expanded the demand for slaves in the Americas, trade in slaves soon overshadowed gold as the principal export of the area. Indeed, the west coast of Africa became the principal source of slaves for the New World. The seemingly insatiable market and the substantial profits to be gained from the slave trade attracted adventurers from all over Europe. Much of the conflict that arose among European groups on the coast and among competing African kingdoms was the result of rivalry for control of this trade.

The Portuguese position on the Gold Coast remained secure for almost a century. During that time, Lisbon leased the right to establish trading posts to individuals or companies that sought to align themselves with the local chiefs and to exchange trade goods both for rights to conduct commerce and for slaves whom the chiefs could provide. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, adventurers--first Dutch, and later English, Danish, and Swedish-- were granted licenses by their governments to trade overseas. On the Gold Coast, these European competitors built fortified trading stations and challenged the Portuguese. Sometimes they were also drawn into conflicts with local inhabitants as Europeans developed commercial alliances with local chiefs.

The principal early struggle was between the Dutch and the Portuguese. With the loss of Elmina in 1642 to the Dutch, the Portuguese left the Gold Coast permanently. The next 150 years saw kaleidoscopic change and uncertainty, marked by local conflicts and diplomatic maneuvers, during which various European powers struggled to establish or to maintain a position of dominance in the profitable trade of the Gold Coast littoral. Forts were built, abandoned, attacked, captured, sold, and exchanged, and many sites were selected at one time or another for fortified positions by contending European nations.
Both the Dutch and the British formed companies to advance their African ventures and to protect their coastal establishments. The Dutch West India Company operated throughout most of the eighteenth century. The British African Company of Merchants, founded in 1750, was the successor to several earlier organizations of this type. These enterprises built and manned new installations as the companies pursued their trading activities and defended their respective jurisdictions with varying degrees of government backing. There were short-lived ventures by the Swedes and the Prussians. The Danes remained until 1850, when they withdrew from the Gold Coast. The British gained possession of all Dutch coastal forts by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, thus making them the dominant European power on the Gold Coast.

During the heyday of early European competition, slavery was an accepted social institution, and the slave trade overshadowed all other commercial activities on the West African coast. To be sure, slavery and slave trading were already firmly entrenched in many African societies before their contact with Europe. In most situations, men as well as women captured in local warfare became slaves. In general, however, slaves in African communities were often treated as junior members of the society with specific rights, and many were ultimately absorbed into their masters' families as full members. Given traditional methods of agricultural production in Africa, slavery in Africa was quite different from that which existed in the commercial plantation environments of the New World.

Another aspect of the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on Africa concerns the role of African chiefs, Muslim traders, and merchant princes in the trade. Although there is no doubt that local rulers in West Africa engaged in slaving and received certain advantages from it, some scholars have challenged the premise that traditional chiefs in the vicinity of the Gold Coast engaged in wars of expansion for the sole purpose of acquiring slaves for the export market. In the case of Asante, for example, rulers of that kingdom are known to have supplied slaves to both Muslim traders in the north and to Europeans on the coast. Even so, the Asante waged war for purposes other than simply to secure slaves. They also fought to pacify territories that in theory were under Asante control, to exact tribute payments from subordinate kingdoms, and to secure access to trade routes--particularly those that connected the interior with the coast.
It is important to mention, however, that the supply of slaves to the Gold Coast was entirely in African hands. Although powerful traditional chiefs, such as the rulers of Asante, Fante, and Ahanta, were known to have engaged in the slave trade, individual African merchants such as John Kabes, John Konny, Thomas Ewusi, and a broker known only as Noi commanded large bands of armed men, many of them slaves, and engaged in various forms of commercial activities with the Europeans on the coast.

The volume of the slave trade in West Africa grew rapidly from its inception around 1500 to its peak in the eighteenth century. Philip Curtin, a leading authority on the African slave trade, estimates that roughly 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to North America and South America, about 4.5 million of that number between 1701 and 1810. Perhaps 5,000 a year were shipped from the Gold Coast alone. The demographic impact of the slave trade on West Africa was probably substantially greater than the number actually enslaved because a significant number of Africans perished during slaving raids or while in captivity awaiting transshipment. All nations with an interest in West Africa participated in the slave trade. Relations between the Europeans and the local populations were often strained, and distrust led to frequent clashes. Disease caused high losses among the Europeans engaged in the slave trade, but the profits realized from the trade continued to attract them.

The growth of anti-slavery sentiment among Europeans made slow progress against vested African and European interests that were reaping profits from the traffic. Although individual clergymen condemned the slave trade as early as the seventeenth century, major Christian denominations did little to further early efforts at abolition. The Quakers, however, publicly declared themselves against slavery as early as 1727. Later in the century, the Danes stopped trading in slaves Sweden and the Netherlands soon followed.

The importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed in 1807. In the same year, Britain used its naval power and its diplomatic muscle to outlaw trade in slaves by its citizens and to begin a campaign to stop the international trade in slaves. These efforts, however, were not successful until the 1860s because of the continued demand for plantation labor in the New World.

Because it took decades to end the trade in slaves, some historians doubt that the humanitarian impulse inspired the abolitionist movement. According to historian Walter Rodney, for example, Europe abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade only because its profitability was undermined by the Industrial Revolution. Rodney argues that mass unemployment caused by the new industrial machinery, the need for new raw materials, and European competition for markets for finished goods are the real factors that brought an end to the trade in human cargo and the beginning of competition for colonial territories in Africa. Other scholars, however, disagree with Rodney, arguing that humanitarian concerns as well as social and economic factors were instrumental in ending the African slave trade.

Nomadic Tribes in Pre-Islamic Arabia

One of the major cultures that dominated the Arabian Peninsula just before the rise of Islam was that of the nomadic Bedouin people. The polytheistic Bedouin clans placed heavy emphasis on kin-related groups, with each clan clustered under tribes. The immediate family shared one tent and can also be called a clan. Many of these tents and their associated familial relations comprised a tribe. Although clans were made up of family members, a tribe might take in a non-related member and give them familial status. Society was patriarchal, with inheritance through the male lines. Tribes provided a means of protection for its members death to one clan member meant brutal retaliation.

Non-members of the tribe were viewed as outsiders or enemies. Tribes shared common ethical understandings and provided an individual with an identity. Warfare between tribes was common among the Bedouin, and warfare was given a high honor. The difficult living conditions in the Arabian Peninsula created a heavy emphasis on family cooperation, further strengthening the clan system.

Bedouin shepherd in the Syrian desert. While most modern Bedouins have abandoned their nomadic and tribal traditions for modern urban lifestyles, they retain traditional Bedouin culture with traditional music, poetry, dances, and other cultural practices.

The Bedouin tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia were nomadic-pastoralists. Pastoralists depend on their small herds of goats, sheep, camels, horses, or other animals for meat, milk, cheese, blood, fur/wool, and other sustenance. Because of the harsh climate and the seasonal migrations required to obtain resources, the Bedouin nomadic tribes generally raised sheep, goats, and camels. Each member of the family had a specific role in taking care of the animals, from guarding the herd to making cheese from milk. The nomads also hunted, served as bodyguards, escorted caravans, and worked as mercenaries. Some tribes traded with towns in order to gain goods, while others raided other tribes for animals, women, gold, fabric, and other luxury items.

Bedouin tribes raised camels as part of their nomadic-pastoralist lifestyle. Tribes migrated seasonally to reach resources for their herds of sheep, goats, and camels. Each member of the family had a specific role in taking care of the animals, from guarding the herd to making cheese from milk.

The Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert is the world's largest hot desert, covering much of North Africa. The adaptations of the wildlife and plants to the treacherous environment are fascinating, and the cultural history of this geographic crossroads complex and involved.

The dromedary camel, one of the Sahara's most famous animals.


The Sahara's environment requires that the wildlife adapt to hyper-arid conditions, fierce winds, intense heat and wide temperature swings. In the heart of the Sahara, for instance, most mammals are relatively small, which helps to minimize water loss. They often meet their water needs from their diets. They take refuge in burrows during the day, hunting and foraging primarily at night, when temperatures are lower. They have developed anatomical adaptations such as the fennec fox's large ears, which help dissipate heat, and its hairy soles, which protect its feet.

Altogether, the Sahara hosts some 70 species of mammals, 90 species of resident birds, 100 species of reptiles, and numerous species of arthropods (invertebrates that have jointed limbs, segmented bodies and external skeletons). The animals include, for a few examples, Barbary sheep, oryx, anubis baboon, spotted hyena, dama gazelle, common jackal and sand fox the birds--ostriches, secretary birds, Nubian bustards and various raptors the reptiles--cobras, chameleons, skinks, various lizards and (where there is sufficient water) crocodiles and the arthropods--numerous ants, scarab beetles and the "deathstalker" scorpion. The wildlife is concentrated primarily along the less severe northern and southern margins and near desert water sources.

Perhaps the Sahara's most famous animal is the dromedary camel, domesticated for thousands of years and long used by the desert nomads. Relying on its fat-filled hump and other physiological adaptations, the dromedary can travel for days with no food or water with its large thick lips, it can feed on thorny plants, salt-laden vegetation and dry grasses with its thick footpads, it can negotiate rocky and sandy terrain with its slit nostrils and heavy eyebrows and lashes, it can protect its nose and eyes from punishing sandstorms and when given water, it can consume more than 30 gallons in a matter of minutes, preparing for more hot dry days.

Seeds sprout quickly after a rain and attempt to complete
their growing cycle before the soil dries out.


Like all deserts, the Sahara harbors a relatively sparse community of wild plants, with the highest concentrations occurring along the northern and southern margins and near the oases and drainages. It has imposed adaptations on the plants. For instance, near wadis and oases, plants such as date palms, tamarisks and acacia put down long roots to reach life-sustaining water. In the more arid areas, the seeds of flowering plants sprout quickly after a rain, putting down shallow roots, and completing their growing cycle and producing seeds in a matter of days, before the soil dries out. The new seeds may lie dormant in the dry soil for years, awaiting the next rainfall to repeat the cycle.

In the most severe areas -- for instance southern Algeria's Tanezrouft Basin, a fearsome mosaic of salt flats, sandstone and sand dunes known as the "Land of Terror" -- plants have been able to establish only the most tenuous foothold, leaving much of the landscape virtually barren.

Ruins of a mosque, its minaret still standing prominently. Located in the Atlas Mountains, at the northern edge of the Sahara, the ruins date back to the early days of Islam in North Africa.

Across the central, most arid part of the Sahara, the plant community comprises perhaps 500 species. By comparison, in South America's Amazonian rainforest -- probably the most biologically rich region in the world -- the plant community includes, according to the estimates of some authorities, well over 40,000 species.

People and Cultures

According to estimates, the Sahara's entire population probably equals less than two million people, including those who live in permanent communities near water sources, those who move from place to place with the seasons, and those who follow the ancient trade routes as permanent nomads. Most have Berber and/or Arabic roots. The Berbers, speaking several dialects of the Berber language, appeared on the scene at the dawn of the Sahara's history.

Aging man whose face shows his Berber and Arab heritage.

The Arabs, speaking Arabic, a Semitic language that originated in Arabia, appeared on the scene thousands of years ago. Most of the Sahara's population follows the Islamic religion, introduced in the seventh century AD.

The Sahara's history is written in terms of primitive hunting and gathering, nomadic trade, agricultural development, early communities, conquest, sophisticated civilizations, monumental architecture, dynasty, exploration, colonization and war. It bears the stamp, not only of the Berbers and early Arabs, but also of Egyptians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. In more recent centuries, it experienced the imprint of Ottoman, Spanish, Italian, French and English colonialism. In the nineteenth century, it heard the whisper of Roman Catholicism. During World War II, it suffered fierce and destructive battles between the Germans and the Allies. In the middle of the last century, its countries cast off their colonial yokes and found freedom.


The Sahara, with its natural and cultural wonders, offers the tourist a rich travel experience. For a few examples, you can:

  • Explore dune fields, oases, the Nile and Niger rivers and even the most barren areas, (for instance, the Tanezrouft Basin--the Land of Terror).
  • See exotic wildlife such as the Barbary sheep, oryx, hyena, jackal and sand fox as well as various birds and reptiles.
  • Join hiking and camel treks, recalling ancient nomadic trading caravans.
  • Visit stunning monuments to the human story in the Sahara, for instance, the standing ruins of ancient cultures and the edifices of more recent cultures.
  • Enjoy the rich fare of ancient, but still lively, bazaars and marketplaces.

If you have not traveled in the Sahara and you are not familiar with the local conventions and standards, you should consult a travel agent, who should provide the information you will need for a rewarding trip.

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